Excerpt from his intervention in Conversation I, October 15, 2000
Excerpt from his intervention in Conversation I, October 15, 2000
I want to take up two explicit problems. And it’s going to sound a bit portentous in the sense these are, I think, the major problems that we should really be thinking about at this time. And the two problems are: first of all, the issue of the paths of technologically and scientific change, in old-fashioned Marxist language, revolutions and productive forces. And the second issue is the issue which goes under the name of globalization right now, which is the reorganization of the world economy along rather new lines. In both cases, I want to argue that these processes are driven by capital accumulation and that they’ve been with us for a very long time. The powers of technological change have been connected to the military industrial complex since the sixteenth century at least, if not before. Globalization has been going on—the formation of the world market through trade, export of capital, transformation of labor forces in different parts of the world. That’s been going on since at least 1492, if not before. So, both of the processes I’m talking about are long-standing. But I think a case, a strong case, can be made that of the last twenty or thirty years, that ratcheted into a slightly different terrain, which makes them qualitatively rather different. I’m not going to spend much time on the technological scientific side except to say the following. Because there’s a lot made of the creation of cyberspace, the internet, computer technology information revolutions and all the rest of it, and that is clearly a very important component part of the new kind of world in which we live in, which poses a whole set of specific issues. And, of course, it does connect very strongly to the globalization process.
But I think even more important as far as I’m concerned, are the revolutions which have been occurring in biological understandings and biological technologies over the last twenty or thirty years. I think processes of genetic engineering, genetic interventions, genetic transformations are rather critical because they’re opening up the possibility that we can actually intervene at that level in the evolutionary process and intervene in major ways. Now of course, human beings have always been evolutionary agents through plant breeding, habit modification, and the like. But this seems to me to be somewhat qualitatively different in that we’re intervening at a level and with a set of mechanics, which are instantaneous as opposed to rather drawn out. And these revolutions pose immediately the question of what kind of evolutionary process we wish to be engaged with. That through both the indirect interventions of habitat destruction and habitat modification and through genetic interventions, we are in a position to control the evolutionary process or intervene in it in these fundamental ways, not only in terms of our evolution but also the evolution of many of the species on the earth. This then poses a whole set of issues as to whether this evolutionary process should be left to the direction of the multinationals… What kind of planet do we want to live on? What kind of species diversity do we wish to maintain? So all of these issues, it seems to me, collect around the notion that we are at this point of either a conscious discussion of these questions in an attempt, not necessarily to come to a specific answer but at least to transform and intervene in the processes that are transforming and intervening in the evolutionary process—whether we’re going to do that or just sort of be objects of this evolutionary process and just, as it were, let it happen. And it seems to me there’s a very important topic of conversation to be had around that question.
The second issue is the globalization process. Again, [this process has] been going on for a very, very long time. But over the last thirty or so years it’s been connected of course with this strong financialization of capital, the organization of financial markets, the reorganization of divisions of labor on a world scale. The deindustrialization and reindustrialization, all of those sorts of things, which you may well be familiar with. Now, we can make an analysis of globalization. I don’t propose to do that here and the various ways in which it can be understood. But I want to point out a number of specific elements about it because I also want to see it as a somewhat contradictory process and a rather more complicated process than is usually set out in the literature. The first point I want to make about it is that an interesting dialogue is being set up, as it were, between this process called globalization, which assumes very much in consciousness and in representation as if it’s something ethereal, something that’s so far up there that somehow or other none of us can deal with it. It’s operating on us. You know, governments can’t control. Nobody can control it. There’s something called globalization that’s going on. It’s sort of, it has this ethereal quality to it. That ethereal quality then connects to, as it were, the opposite end of the scale of things, which is the notion of the individual and the personal. And it sometimes seems like dialogue and discussion get segregated into this discussion of globalization, which is way up there, and then personal life, personal well-being, the person as it were, the other end down here. And somehow there’s no connectivity between those two levels. One of the things I tried to do in this last book is to say what is the connectivity between those two discourses of globalization and, for example, the body or the person or the individual. What is the connection between the two? And of course, if you think of the labor process, immediately you see what the connection is, that the body of the worker in an IKEA plant in Indonesia is being used in a certain kind of way for certain kinds of purposes, which connect to the first. So, there’re all sorts of connections that exist. But there is also an interesting progressive connection. I want to play on the duality here. A progressive connection. There has been a tremendous resurgence in the last few years of interesting questions of let’s say human rights, which is about the rights of individuals and the body in relationship to these global processes. And at that point you kind of start to see the connectivity. And then you start to see it at other levels like some of the international conferences on population and women, talking about, you know, what’re the reproductive rights of women and what has that got to do, as it were, with the global processes of population transformation. So, there are points of dialogue between those two levels, and I want to come back to that a little later.
Because the next point I want to make is that actually if you start to unpack what globalization is about, it doesn’t exist to some ethereal aspect up there. It actually is occurring at all kinds of different levels and all kinds of different scales. And I think we’d have to start to look at the different scales at which the globalization process is operating in order to get a better grasp on how to politically intervene in relationship to it. Because one of the things I’ve been very antagonistic to over the last few years is the sense of helplessness that you can’t intervene, you can’t do anything. The best you can do is do something in your own back yard. Take care of your own property and it enhances value or something like that. And you can’t do anything much else, you know. And that came over in this famous Margaret Thatcher phrase, which I’m thoroughly at war with, which is the notion that there is no alternative. And to say well maybe we should be thinking alternatives. And then the issue arises where can we think alternatives? How can we think alternatives? And it’s very hard to think alternatives if you just think about globalization as some ethereal set of processes that nobody’s in control of. But you can start to think alternatives when you start to unpack it. Globalization has implications at the very personal level. And I’ve mentioned this issue about human rights. And the resurgence in recent years, for example, with this notion of crimes against humanity. General Pinochet being arrested in London at the behest of a Spanish judge for crimes committed in Chile. Well, this is one aspect of globalization and it’s a very interesting aspect. It starts to say there are ways to hold individuals and entities accountable in some way for events in other parts of the world. And this is one of the places where there are some constructive possibilities that come out of the globalization argument. The globalization also has effects at other levels at, for example, the community level. David [Avalos] just talked a little bit about this. I think it’s very important to recognize that what’s happening in say San Diego, what’s happening in Baltimore, is not just something which is just our own back-yard politics. It is connected in very important ways to what this globalization process is about. And by acting at that level, you can actually engage in transformative work, which has possibilities when taken towards other levels to do something quite different about the political situation. Many people have given up on the nation state. They say the nation state is powerless any more. Well, you know, having crossed that border down there twice in the last couple of days, the idea of the nation’s state as powerless? Come off it. I mean, this is crazy. And, so, at that level there is also something, which is crucial. Nation states are not powerless. Nation states are terribly important containers of power with a possibility of engaging with this process in quite different ways. And if you start to look at the ways in which different nation states have responded to globalization, have affected globalization, then you can kind of say national state policy is actual a very important terrain of intervention. There are regional configurations, which are below the nation state and some instances above the nation state, regional configurations which are rather important to consider. And, actually, the formation of regional consciousness in some cases, you see it happening in many areas of Europe. At the same time, you’re getting the European Union, a sort of large-scale region, you’re also getting lots of regional consciousness movements which are emerging, I mean not only in the traditional centers like the Basque country, but also in Northern Italy and in places like that. So, you’re getting as it were again a different reconfiguration. Again, those things are not unconnected with this very general process that we call globalization.
And then there are the multinational or transnational institutes like the European Union, like NAFTA, which are also important in the way in which this process is being worked out. And then there are the global institutions—the INF, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank— and all those things that have been the target of a lot of radical attention in the last few years through Seattle, Washington, Prague, Melbourne, and the like. So when you start to think about it you see there are all these layers of activities that occur at different scales. And one of the questions we need to look at is what is the relationship between what is happening here in San Diego at the community level, the very local community level, at the metropolitan level, and what that relationship is also to the kind of regional consciousness that might be emerging across the border. What is that all about and how does that relate as it were to processes of globalization? There have been many transformative things occurring in the last few years. Just to give you one example that struck me quite catastrophically yesterday when looking at that, you know, Operation Gatekeeper and the wall. I mean, I kept on thinking back to the tremendous euphoria attached to the attack on the Berlin wall, when people took sledge hammers and smashed the whole thing down. And frankly my response to that, the balloon event, was I wanted to take a sledgehammer to that damn wall. And then thinking, but why is that wall somehow rather regarded legitimate? Why are we putting walls up in some parts of the world and tearing them down elsewhere? Why are people going behind gated communities, living in gated communities and putting walls all over the place? At the same time, we’ve got globalization going on. What’s going on? What’s the relationship between these two? And I want to argue that the relationships are not contingent or accidental. There is a structural transformation going on in the ways in which life is being worked out geographically through globalization.
Now, what kinds of responses can we have to these two processes of globalization and technological change? It seems to me there are some fundamental questions that might be asked. I work in a university and I can assure you these questions are not generally asked inside the university. I’m not sure they’re being asked anywhere in any sort of coherent form. A month ago I was in the Vatican of all places. I’m not Catholic. I’m not particularly religious at all. But one of the things that was interesting about the discussion in the Vatican was precisely this issue of saying, what does it mean to be human right now? And can we develop a way of thinking that resonates with the marginalized, the oppressed, the excluded, and the alienated? And if so, what kinds of things would we want to say? As a force in opposition to, from the Vatican’s language, the crafts materialism, the nihilism, and the postmodernism of contemporary culture and all the rest of it. And I think, for me anyway, what was interesting was the seriousness of the question. What does it mean to be a human being right now with all of these capacities and powers in front of us? And how are we going to understand ourselves? And some of these issues are being discussed in things like issues about human rights in general, the interests of collective rights, the whole kinds of questions of cultural relativism, misuse of those sorts. So there is, there’s a whole a series of sites, if you want to call it that, of discussion of thinking and of feeling. And I think feeling is probably more important than thinking. Feeling that there is something which is catastrophically wrong. There is something that is really out of whack. We seem to be headed in the wrong direction. We’re on the wrong train. We need to get off it. We need to create another one. How can we do it? And if you ask yourself the question, where is the opposition to this whole system we’re talking about occurring? The answer is it’s all over the place. I find it in my own city in terms of living-wage movements and discontent and alienation in many marginalized communities. I find it in many other places, you know the peasant movements in India or movements in rural Brazil. I mean, you name it, there’s sort of movements all over the place, which are oppositional movements. All of them expressing the view that something is wrong, that something’s got to be done. And it can sometimes take specific issues about the environment or cultural autonomy or personal liberties and freedoms and all those sorts of things.
But there’s something wrong. And then we have to start to talk about why is this thing that’s wrong so wrong? My answer is a very simple one. It’s because we’ve given up before the powers of capital cumulation and money. It’s as simple as that. We lie down in front of it all. Which is not to say everybody who wields that power is an evil, nasty kind of person, but to say basically look, that’s where the power lies. And we seem not to be able to mobilize ourselves against it. Look at the elections and look at what David was talking about. So how do we start to configure a conversation about alternatives? And that conversation has to address what for me is really the fundamental kind of issue about who are we and what do we want to become? What kind of world do we want to live in? And if capital can’t give us that world, then we should find some way to get rid of capital and construct something completely different. And that’s a revolutionary solution. It’s a terrible place to say that right here, right? There are possibilities it seems to me that the social democratic possibility would be to control it in some way. Turn it into a servant rather than a master. Control it, and see if it can be used. And actually right now, of course, we’re getting all these institutions which are precisely about regulation and control. We have sort of the questions of financial instability, how can that be regulated and controlled? We have questions of the environment. How can that be regulated and controlled? We have social and political questions. How can that be regulated and controlled? So actually right now there’s a whole kind of almost coming back of a notion of there’s going to be some global regulatory apparatus. And along with that sort of issue, which is seen as a technical sort of managerial kind of problem comes another problem, which is what kinds of values are going to be incorporated in those institutions, which is what the struggle in Seattle in many ways was about. What kinds of values should be incorporated in the WTO or in the IMF if you can put any values in them whatsoever other than the purely monetary ones? So those are the issues that then come back, these sort of moral issues. Where can these things be discussed? Will they be discussed within the formal structure of university education? I don’t see it. I really don’t see it. I try to discuss it, but frankly, you know, I get pretty much marginalized in my own institution, which is one of the reasons I’m leaving Hopkins because it’s all about selling itself to technological change and the state apparatus. It’s all about that. It’s all about gaining money. I don’t own enough research grants. I’m a non-valued person in my institution. And they make it clear you’re non-valued. And they treat you that way. You’re a parasite because you’re not making, you’re not giving yourself over to government and industry. They have a mission statement, the first draft of which said, “We have to give ourselves over to serving government and industry.” When I got up and said, “Well what about the public interest? What about poor?” People kind of said, “Oh, yeah, well, oh yeah. Maybe we should modify the statement.” But they’re not going to modify the practice. So it might occur not there. Would it occur through I don’t know museums and so on? I don’t know much about museums and so on. And it seems to me that organizations like INSITE have a real possibility. And it’s a possibility, not necessarily a realization and we might want to discuss that. Of exploring some of the contradictions that would exist within this process particularly between the levels, between the way in which the personal is political for many artists. And the way in which that relates to something called community, which maybe relates to the question of regional consciousness across borders. Are there sort of contradictory elements there that can be actually played upon? And how can those contradictory elements be played upon? I think this is for me the sort of question which arises: is INSITE a site where these kinds of issues can be discussed and brought to the floor and how can they be brought to the floor? That is as I say, the major issue from my standpoint. So there are then these two fundamental questions that I would want to look at. And in looking at them I think it’s not that we can look at them and say, “Well, I have all the answers or you know this is what we should do and this is how we should do it.” But it is a moment where I think we need conversations, conversations about alternatives, conversations about where we are. Where we’re going with all this stuff, how to understand it perhaps. And having understood it a bit better, put ourselves in a position to intervene in it in some sort of conscious political way through the formation of alliances, through the configuration of linking together activities at one scale with another scale. You know there’s a tendency for people who work with community action to say the only place that matters is community action because people that work at the state say it’s at the state that matters. People that work at the global institution say the global institutions matter. They all matter. And if we can find ways to talk across those different scales of political action, I think we’ll be in a much better position to confront some of the dynamics of technological change and globalization. Thank you very much.